Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Blood Feud

Alan Moore, Tony Daniel & Kevin Conrad Blood Feud (1995)
I have to wonder just how much Alan Moore must have hated DC that he ended up as beard in residence at Image Comics; and yes, I'm aware of Image having redeemed themselves in recent years, but Lordy they published some horrendous shite back in the day.

Spawn wasn't necessarily a bad idea, but then it's probably debatable as to whether the resurrected instrument of dark vengeance ever really counted as an idea beyond something gruesome for Todd McFarlane to draw. I read those three issues Grant Morrison wrote, because Grant Morrison wrote them, and they were okay if nothing amazing. Blood Feud is a four-issue series wherein Spawn's eldritch trousers come to life and have a fight with him, handily recycling the saga of Spiderman having a scrap with his own costume - actually a shape-changing alien called Venom - another McFarlane masterpiece. Alan Moore was drafted in to write the thing, presumably because him do word stuff good, so there are some nice ideas here and there, and the dialogue doesn't suck so hard as it might. I'm not even sure McFarlane was involved beyond some editorial capacity, but it feels as though he was.

The problem is that the art is fucking horrible, just really awful. As with certain others who caught a ride on the Image monster truck, it's comics drawn by people who learned to draw comics by reading and copying comics and nothing else, unless you count a video game. It's all crosshatching and lurid detail distracting from the figurework of someone who never took a life drawing class, or who took a life drawing class but spent most of it reading earlier issues of Spawn. Faces are awkward knots of muscle concealing too many teeth, and there's so much baroque embellishment it's not always immediately obvious what's even happening on the page; but nothing, not even voice balloons wherein dramatic words like blood and dead are printed red, can conceal the fact that the artist can't fucking draw. Terms such as highly stylised or exaggerated don't cut it as excuses either. This isn't Pablo Picasso finally concluding it's okay to paint a woman's eyes on the side of her head. This is cartooning subject to the same process of reductive recursion as has resulted in wildstyle graffiti art and the logos of black metal bands; and the concept is at about the same level as hey, wouldn't it be cool if the covers of all those Iron Maiden albums were a comic book?

Then again, on the letters page we find thirteen-year old Chase Samsel opining that another problem is this thing where you and Greg Capullo both pencil - it looks queerer, okay? Cut it out. Which I suppose neatly summarises audience expectation, specifically that they're happy providing it doesn't look all queer 'n' shit.

The best which can be said of Blood Feud is that it allowed Alan Moore to buy food and to stay alive long enough to write something better.

See what I mean?

Monday, 19 March 2018

Love is Forever - We Are for Tonight

Robert Moore Williams Love is Forever - We Are for Tonight (1970)
Having discovered that this novel, sold as science-fiction, is actually an autobiographical ramble through Williams' peculiar life, I had to own it at any cost. Luckily the cost was peanuts because no-one remembers or cares who Robert Moore Williams was, which is an enormous shame. I've read three of his novels and they've each been strikingly bizarre, undeniably pulpy, but suggesting the dream imagery of A.E. van Vogt turned towards ponderous allegorical or philosophical ends, like a Gernsbackian update of nineteenth-century Symbolist novels such as A Voyage to Arcturus or Lilith - and yes I know Lindsay's novel dates from 1920 because I've just looked it up. Anyway, it seems obvious that there was a lot more going on here than a guy hacking out tales of rockets and aliens for the sake of making a living.

Williams' story begins with him growing up on a farm in Missouri, inspired by the writing of Abraham Merritt - also a big influence on both Lovecraft and Richard Shaver, with whom Williams' writing shares certain conceits - so clearly a name I'm going to have to investigate. I'd say Bob wasn't the full ticket, and his understanding of reality suggests possibly schizophrenic or otherwise psychologically unorthodox tendencies, but I don't know how much use it would be; and certainly there's not much point reading this thing with the opinion of it having been written by a nutcase. Williams experienced, not quite visions, but certainly voices and inexplicable occurrences, and whether or not they were all in his mind probably shouldn't matter.

Williams fixates on love early on, not just by the terms we already acknowledge, but as though it should be considered an ethereal force roughly akin to the animating yolia of Nahua mythology, or - if you must - the force of Star Wars. From then on he dabbles with Hubbard's Dianetics, specifically the notion of contemporary ills deriving from engrams of long forgotten trauma; then takes part in a new age commune in Colorado Springs, a group he refers to as the wild bunch; invents something called the colourscope with which he put on light shows for an audience towards some spiritual purpose; finally ending up dropping acid on a ranch in California.

Checking out this kick that the kids had going, using minimal quantities of LSD, the experimental work being done in nearby Mexico, I discovered that the kids knew exactly what they were doing! LSD opened a channel into this higher love that had been coming to me in other ways!

What the kids had found was love! Perhaps they had also discovered a way around the meaning of hydrogen!

They were doing exactly what I was doing, but doing it differently and better. They were seeking a path into tomorrow. And so was I! Love was not restricted to writers who lived in lonely mountain cabins and who were sometimes up at dawn to talk to weaning colts beside a horse corral. It was in these wonderful kids too. On university campuses and in little coffee houses the talk was of this astonishing love. Sometimes the regents of various universities were annoyed at demonstrations they could not understand, but my strong feeling was, and still is, that these young people with the shining faces were closer to the heart of life and nearer the path to tomorrow than all the regents who ever existed.

The seemingly esoteric reference to hydrogen stems from Williams' horror at the creation and use of the hydrogen bomb, which comes to symbolise the antithesis of the force he identifies as love.

Of course, on many levels it's all bonkers, but I'm sure we've already established as much, and simply being bonkers doesn't necessarily have any bearing on whether or not Love is Forever has value as a piece of writing, which I believe it does. Williams takes a sort of shamanic journey through his own existence which, incredibly, is actually fairly coherent, and works because it is seasoned with self deprecation, just enough self-doubt to render it  readable, and the author's insistence that he is himself nothing special in the great scheme of things. As with so many others of his generation, Williams was simply looking for the way forward in human terms, perhaps not quite dreaming of supermen so much as a species which could at least move past the desire to blow itself up; and even with the testimony coming from the very edge of what the rest of us tend to regard as sanity, there are plenty of worthwhile truths in this book because it comes from a place of great honesty.

At the end I found Williams a likable character, a somewhat driven man who believed in his own experiences and wished only to share them with others; and it gives me cause to regret that he isn't better remembered. His work may not have been what you'd call mainstream, and at least two of the four novels I have are amongst the strangest things I've read, but he's not inaccessible, and at heart he was a populist.

Back when I first took to picking up old science-fiction paperbacks with lurid covers, I always hoped I'd discover some long forgotten master of the art. I just didn't imagine it would be anything quite so peculiar.

Robert Moore Williams, June 19th 1907 - May 12th 1977.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1979)
Taken as a body of work, Kurt Vonnegut's writing can be frustrating in so much as that whilst its value is always quite clearly discernible, often it is defeated by the narrative chaos in which his pearls of genuine wisdom are bedded; and yet the narrative chaos may be integral to the communication of the aforementioned pearls of genuine wisdom. So, to put it simply, it's a balancing act of just enough randomly surrealist swerves to keep it interesting without getting boring and losing the reader. When he's on form, he's amazing, but when the balance is off, his books can be a real chore.

Excepting Fortitude, a screenplay for a short film, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons is non-fiction - the essays, reviews, articles, and public oratory of Kurt Vonnegut, plus one lengthy interview which first appeared in Playboy. Of course, with Vonnegut, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction refers to the least important aspects of the narrative; and - happily - the discipline of this shorter form brings his thoughts into much sharper focus. There's still the sense of him running into a sweet shop and simultaneously grabbing at everything within reach, all at the same time, but the points made are bolder, more direct, particularly as an admission of the pessimism which informs his writing.

I saved my marriage many times by exclaiming, 'Wait! Wait! I see light at the end of the tunnel at last!' And I wish I could bring light to your tunnels today. My wife begged me to bring you light, but there is no light. Everything is going to become unimaginably worse, and never get better again. If I lied to you about that, you would sense that I'd lied to you, and that would be another cause for gloom. We have enough causes for gloom.

He even applies the same ruthless honesty to his own tendency to frame everything as satire, albeit dark satire.

I had the feeling [Abbie Hoffman] wasn't going to be clowning much more. A lot of naturally funny people who want to help Losers aren't going to clown anymore. They have caught on that clowning doesn't throw off the timing or slow down cruel social machinery. In fact, it usually serves as a lubricant.

Every so often somebody tells me that it is a delicious fact of history that clowns have often been the most effective revolutionaries. That isn't true. Cruel social machines in the past have needed clowns for lubrication so much that they have often manufactured them. Consider the Spanish Inquisition.

When the Inquisition was about to burn somebody alive in a public square, it shaved that person from head to foot. It tortured the person to the point of babbling idiocy, fitted him out with a dunce cap and a lurid paper cloak. His or her face was painted or masked.

Hey presto! A clown!

The idea, of course, was to make the victim comical rather than pitiful. Pity is like rust to a cruel social machine.

This all adds up to a collection which carefully explains everything that is wrong with western civilisation, even the human race itself, and explains it in clear and concise terms which even a fucking idiot would understand, and in generous, good humoured spirit without either sneering or pointing fingers - which Vonnegut identifies as at least part of the broader problem.

Seeing as everything is only going to get worse anyway, one more finger isn't going to make much difference. If you happen to be, for example - a 2018 Congressional candidate still campaigning on the basis of something Obama may or may not have done, a dangerous orange draft dodger who shouldn't be left in charge of a pot plant let alone an entire country, or just my wife's dumbass facebook friend posting about how much she resents her taxes paying for welfare recipients to eat lobster - then you really, really, really, really need to read this book, because it will explain where you're going wrong and why you're making everything worse for the rest of us; except of course you won't because you're scared, and Vonnegut also explains that too.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Galaxy volume two

Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg & Joseph D. Olander (editors)
Galaxy volume two (1980)

I have a vague impression of Galaxy as having been one of the better magazines in the same way that Fantasy & Science Fiction seems to be one of the better magazines for short science-fiction which may or may not involve robots, spaceships, aliens, and the like. I suspect this impression mainly comes from my having noticed how many of Philip K. Dick's short stories first appeared in Galaxy; although rummaging around on Wikipedia, it seems the magazine probably deserved its reputation for having broken new ground, and for maintaining a certain standard.

This collection - presumably along with the first volume, of which I don't have a copy - seems to represent a sort of post-mortem, a greatest hits set published in the year of cancellation. Either the anthology is nothing like so good as it should be, or I'm approaching science-fiction saturation point. It's not a bad collection, and maybe the first volume is amazing, but given the names invoked on the cover, it should surely be a lot more fun than it is.

Dick's Oh, To Be a Blobel! is obviously wonderful, but is unfortunately of such quality as to make the stories which follow seem for the most part cranky, fussy, poorly conceived, and written by people who don't get out much. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Day Before the Revolution is still at least as great as it seemed last time I read it; and Harlan Ellison's Cold Friend is pretty damn sparky; and I've never read any John Varley, but after Overdrawn at the Memory Bank I shall be keeping an eye open for more; but as for the rest, I'm sat here looking at the contents page. I read the lot and yet I can't remember a single thing about any one of them. Actually, that's not strictly true. I recall that Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's collaborative The Gift of Garigolli felt like being stuck in an elevator with Groucho Marx and made no sense whatsoever, so I stopped reading it. Maybe these stories just seemed better at the time, back when they still had the shock of the relatively new on their side. Maybe I need to come back to this one in a more receptive frame of mind.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Future Glitter

A.E. van Vogt Future Glitter (1973)
Future Glitter kicks off in spectacularly weird form with a scientist named Higenroth who, as we learn, has developed something called Pervasive Theory, which will allow unlimited instantaneous communication across improbable distances, apparently without the need for specialised receiving apparatus. It reads somewhat like a prediction of the internet - although Murray Leinster beat him to that particular prophecy back in 1946 - but the point is the free availability of the sort of information which would theoretically destabilise a totalitarian state. Higenroth's world is just such a state, and one most likely extrapolated from communist China going by what van Vogt describes in his introduction. Higenroth is due to be beheaded in recognition of his breakthrough, because this is a state in which beheading has somehow become a great Accolade, and the deed is therefore titled and capitalised as such; and as we join our narrative, Higenroth is besieged by students, fans and admirers who wish to lay claim to the knowledge they will somehow posthumously and presumably psychically acquire from specific parts of his brain.

At this point I couldn't actually tell if I'd read the book before, perhaps as a short story or under a variant title. I decided that the impression may have derived from my having started the book on previous occasions, then given it up as impenetrable; or, so it seemed to me, it could be that A.E. van Vogt is actually his own discreet dimension with laws variant to those of our reality, and his books are simply portals to the same. Reading his novels places one in a different and yet familiar space, much like the Mexican idea about how our dreams are actually things we experience in the Land of the Dead as we sleep. As the man himself said, a fair bit of his imagery came from dreams, which is very much evident here.

The totalitarian state of Future Glitter is experienced mainly through a small cast of characters obliged to deal with Higenroth's legacy, so it is mostly implied, and nowhere near so well realised as in the usual books which might come to mind - Orwell, Huxley, and so on. Nevertheless, van Vogt's focus is keen as ever, even if he's not looking in quite the same direction as other authors, and the following passage struck a particular chord:

Like so many others, he could see that remorseless logic had its place. Could see that lies seemed to work better than truth with certain groups of people. Therefore they were a peculiar truth of their own.

If a man will not be swayed to a good action by the simple truth of, for example, that it was a need, but responds, instead, to a falsehood, then that falsehood is where he is. There is something deep inside him that can be motivated only by very specific symbols.

Accordingly, you must present him with those exact symbols even though, at first, second, third and so on glance, they appeared to be contrary to the outward appearance of fact; so reasoned Crother Williams, as others had done before him.

I must, he thought, realise that the good end is what counts. The means would have to be whatever they needed to be.

What it amounted to was adjusting hour by hour to the reality of the reign of Lilgin.

Unfortunately, once past the promising initial chapters, Future Glitter somewhat lost me. Its focus blurs and the book seems to be talking to itself. There's a sensation of progress, but not much indication of where it's heading. Additionally, the author's bewildering attitude to women begins to get in the way.
Her husband, Dr. Glucken, made no comment as this outright falsehood was perpetrated upon him. In his two marriages he had already learned—it seemed to him—that a woman's reality operated more smoothly, if, like a river in sand, it was allowed to seek its natural channels, however they might meander from a straight course.

It's not that he believes women to be necessarily useless so much as that it's hard to tell just what he believes, or by what degree was van Vogt a man of his time, as the euphemism would have it. Here we meet more of those frustrated dolly birds, usually not much older than twenty, keen to have sex with senior men as some sort of reaction to the constraints of society. A.E. van Vogt's females, such as they are, seem to represent the liberation of an oppressed group - at least as he saw it - but it's impossible to tell whether he regards their oppression as an injustice or as an inevitable result of their being inherently useless, good for only two things if you count cooking the dinner...

And they were men only. Not a single woman in view. The vaunted equalising of male and female, so forcefully promoted in all the lower reaches of society, had no place in this room.

See, I can't even tell if that condemns the hypocrisy of Higenroth's world, or if it foreshadows contemporary arseholes whining about political correctness run riot; and then we come to:
His eyes narrowed. It wasn't too often that girls as pretty as Sheeda passed his way; not these days. So he was one of the three top men in his organisation who had raped her.

This, by the way, is Orlo, our main guy, heir to Higenroth's legacy and Future Glitter's Winston Smith, roughly speaking.

The author of the excellent MPorcius Fiction Log seemed to get a lot more from Future Glitter than I managed, not least discerning narrative undercurrents which didn't even register with me, and which inspired the following conclusion:
Here and in the Weapon Shop books Van Vogt argues that firm rule is preferable to anarchy and war, though he also advocates for checks on that rule - not necessarily Democratic or Republican checks, mind you, like elections or referenda, but the moderating power of an additional, confrontational, elite. (To be fair, there are sections of The Weapon Makers which stress the importance of constitutionalism, portraying the fact that the Weapon Shop council is not, or should not be, above its own laws.) I have already pointed out how in Earth Factor X Van Vogt suggests that ordinary people crave authority and want to be told what to do, and he does that in Future Glitter as well.

I probably should have read that before I read this, but never mind. Alfred Elton was regrettably wrong about the destabilising power of information, as we've seen this past year with even the foulest of proven indiscretions failing to impact the politics of brute force and personal loyalties. The book nevertheless felt like a worthwhile - if occasionally muddled - reading experience, keeping in mind that (a) you'd probably have to be an idiot to expect anything of worth in a van Vogt novel when it comes to the subject of gender, and (b) it's not unreasonable to enjoy the work of authors writing from a different point on the political spectrum.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Maigret Stonewalled

Georges Simenon Maigret Stonewalled (1931)
I'm struggling to say anything that I haven't already said about two previous Maigret novels, as reviewed here and here respectively. This one entails a slightly knottier level of deduction than either Milord or Trap, and to tell the truth some of it was lost on me, but then I've been reading the things for the atmosphere more than anything, and Maigret Stonewalled delivers in that respect.

Seriously, I haven't got anything to add.

It made for a very pleasant read.

Monday, 26 February 2018


Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill Metalzoic (1986)
I first read Metalzoic in episodic form in the pages of 2000AD, but this is the source, an original DC graphic novel, and a graphic novel in the sense that it isn't just a stack of existing comics reprinted as a single volume. I'm not convinced it would work just as a novel, all words and no visual element. In fact, the narrative is such that it's difficult to work out quite how they broke it up for serialisation in the galaxy's greatest. I no longer have those issues of the comic, although I recall the impression Metalzoic made on me at the time, and in at least enough detail to suspect that it probably worked significantly better in black and white.

All the same, the colour is fine so that isn't much of a criticism because Metalzoic may even be the best strip either of these guys ever had a hand in. It really is breathtaking, and is probably the weirdest thing Kevin O'Neill ever drew. The story, which recalls some of those screwy posthuman environments which always seemed to feature in Brian Aldiss novels, takes place in the far future. Humanity has dwindled to stragglers, and the planet has reverted to its natural state, but a natural state formed from the distant descendants of self-replicating machines, robot mammoths, robot primates, a mechanical savannah - I'm not sure who else but Kevin O'Neill could have drawn this and made it work. Mills is similarly on top form, writing science-fiction like it's a Bash Street Kids strip, balancing brash dialogue with entire pages of silence during which the art speaks for itself. Despite that it probably looked marginally better in black and white, Metalzoic is a masterpiece and sadly seems to have been one of a kind.